Hidden Toronto: Winter Garden Theatre

Home to fantastic performances of Opera Atelier and the world’s largest collection of vaudeville-era stage scenery and memorabilia

What Behind the scenes at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Where Upper level, 189 Yonge.

When December 2, 2019.

Why The largest collection of vaudeville-era stage scenery and memorabilia. Also, a perfect refuge for the Guillermo del Toro’s gilled man in The Shape Of Water.

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Richard Longley

The upper level of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre (the Elgin occupies the lower level) is an “atmospheric theatre” with murals of vegetation, tree-trunk columns, lanterns and a forest of leaves hanging from its ceiling. It’s been home to fantastic performances of Opera Atelier. The Winter Garden Theatre was closed in 1928 and remained closed until 1981 when both the Elgin and Winter Garden were acquired by the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Restoration began in 1984 and ended in 1989, exactly 76 years after the Winter Garden opened. But restoration can seem endless. In 2018, 30 years after the original silk leaves on ceiling branches were replaced, all of them, on 21,800 branches, were replaced again.

Preserved at the Winter Garden is the world’s largest collection of vaudeville-era stage scenery and memorabilia. On display are its original 1914 stage and house lighting board, its lighting trough with electric bulbs and gas jets, its machinery for hoisting vaudeville scenery and its 1920s Simplex movie projector for silent films. All that’s missing is the roar of the greasepaint and the stench of the crowd.

On the fifth floor of the theatre you find the Winter Garden’s original washrooms, cramped and scanty: three urinals and three stalls for men, a pair of stalls for women, hand basins for both and doors so narrow they must have been made for the thinnest of patrons.

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Richard Longley

According to a story told by Anya Wassenberg there’s also the ghost of a young woman who was stabbed in the washroom. Legend has it she managed to drag herself to the elevator, but no one was around. She died on the spot. Staff say the hand-operated elevator sometimes travels spontaneously up to the fifth floor and opens to an empty hallway.

The Winter Garden was built with 21 dressing rooms – that number was needed in the vaudeville era. One has been preserved and equipped as it was in the 1920s, well-equipped with cosmetics, a hairbrush and curling irons, long white gloves, a fan, a chapeau and cabin trunks ready to be packed for the move to the next assignment.

The Elgin and Winter Garden is a place where dreams are made. The theatres are in action year-round and open for tours Mondays at 5 pm, Saturdays at 10 am and during Doors Open Toronto which takes place May 23-24 this year.

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Richard Longley

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature on the tucked-away places and fascinating faces that make up the city. It appears Fridays online and Thursdays in print.


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